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WPAC – Lack of concern

It has been more than two years since the January and April 2012 explosions that destroyed the Babine and Lakeland sawmills in central British Columbia, tragically killing four workers, injuring forty-four more, and putting hundreds out of work.

August 5, 2014
By Gordon Murray


It has been more than two years since the January and April 2012 explosions that destroyed the Babine and Lakeland sawmills in central British Columbia, tragically killing four workers, injuring forty-four more, and putting hundreds out of work.

Investigations by WorkSafe BC (WSBC) and BC Safety Authority (BCSA) determined that both explosions were preventable, having been caused by ineffective control of combustible dust. Each mill was cutting beetle-killed pine, which produces a considerably greater volume of wood dust and much finer dust than from cutting green wood. Suspended dust, confined space, oxygen, and an ignition source combined to cause both explosions. Regulators and forest industry leadership responded swiftly and aggressively.

WSBC developed a combustible dust strategy to cover all categories of wood processing plants. Their strategy included reminding employers of their obligations under the Workers’ Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Regulation and advancing a combustible dust management program for employers, consisting of facility risk assessment, development of a combustible dust management plan and employee training. WSBC issued orders for all employers to clean combustible dust in their plants and followed with four successive phases of inspections to assess compliance. Similarly, BCSA (administrator of the Safety Standards Act) issued a safety order regarding combustible dust to 403 active and inactive sawmills, pulp and paper mills, pellet mills, remanufacturing mills, and other wood processors. Forest industry leaders formed the Manufacturers’ Advisory Group (MAG) to focus on industry efforts with respect to combustible dust. MAG engaged FPInnovations to improve industry’s understanding of dust sampling, analysis and explosibility and to provide an analysis of how to apply National Fire Protection Association standards to wood processing plants. MAG also developed a dust audit tool and set about organizing workshops and other educational resources for industry members. WSBC, BCSA, MAG, the BC Office of the Fire Commissioner, and the Steelworkers Union formed the Fire Inspection and Prevention Initiative to enable multi-stakeholder cooperation and to provide management and worker training.

Yet, given the experience of the Babine and Lakeland tragedies, it is extremely distressing that a significant number of wood processing plants (including pellet plants) continue to fail regulatory inspections. BCSA reported in March that 34 per cent of plants failed their safety inspections due to inadequate dust management plans; dust accumulations adjacent to electrical and gas equipment; lack of understanding of the level of dust that is hazardous; and poor housekeeping.


Similarly, fully 61 of 144 employer locations were not in regulatory compliance during WSBC’s third phase of inspection and 93 orders were issued in relation to combustible dust. Most orders were for “unacceptable levels of dust accumulations outside normal production areas; i.e. basements, crawl spaces, overhead areas, areas hidden behind motor control centres or cabinets, and outside areas.”

While WSBC and BCSA acknowledge that many employers have made substantial progress at implementing systems and equipment to control combustible dust, the number of non-compliant employer locations is simply unacceptable. Surely employers must understand by now the catastrophic consequences of a dust explosion and the means of prevention. It is beyond comprehension that combustible dust remains a crisis issue to be solved.

Recently, B.C. Crown prosecutors announced their intention not to pursue criminal charges relating to the Babine or Lakeland explosions. This caused a wave of public protest putting the B.C. government and WSBC under extreme pressure to prevent such injuries and loss of life from ever happening again. Yet, a substantial portion of our industry remains non-compliant with respect to combustible dust and the risk of another mill explosion remains substantial. And now, given our experience and all we have learned, the consequences would be unimaginable.

For more on combustible dust and the new regulations, go to .

Gordon Murray is executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada. He encourages all those who want to support and benefit from the growth of the Canadian wood pellet industry to join. Gordon welcomes all comments and can be contacted by telephone at 250-837-8821 or by email at

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